Bob on Books 2017 Honorable Mentions

renegade

Yesterday, I posted my selection of “bests” for 2017. I had to make some tough choices to limit the list to ten books. So I thought I would share with you some of the “honorable mentions.” These easily could have made other lists and probably have. At very least, they seem worthy enough to me that I hope you will take a second look. I have not put these in any categories and there may be a few more not from 2017, but that I read this year.
becoming-curious

Becoming Curious, Casey Tygrett (Foreward by James Bryan Smith). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017. I loved the thesis that asking questions is a spiritual discipline and curiosity is integral to our transformation. (Full Review)  grieving-a-suicide

Grieving a Suicide (Second Edition), Albert Y. Hsu. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017. A narrative of a survivor of a father’s suicide–gentle, honest and tremendously helpful both in addressing prevention, and the grief when prevention efforts are not enough. (Full Review)

the-road-back-to-you

The Road Back to YouIan Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016. Reviewed at the beginning of the year, I thought this one of the most witty, incisive, and useful books on the Enneagram. A great introduction. (Full Review)

the-long-loneliness

The Long LonelinessDorothy Day. New York: HarperCollins, 1952. We read this in a reading group this fall, and thought Day a classic example of someone living a “Bohemian” lifestyle who was spiritually hungry, as well as one who combined activism with a profound inner life. (Full Review)

the-heir-apparent

The Heir ApparentJane Ridley. New York: Random House, 2013. Fascinating biography of another prince under a long-lived monarch. Edward VII was a womanizer, loved the horses, and yet transformed the British monarchy, both as its face in Victoria’s later years, and in his own short reign. (Full Review)

renegade

Renegade: Martin Luther, The Graphic BiographyAndrea Grosso Ciponte (illustrator), Dacia Palmerino (text), Michael G. Parker (translator). Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2017. This year marked the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation and has been celebrated with a spate of new Luther books. I read several, but thought this “graphic biography”  brought a fresh perspective on a seemingly familiar life. (Full Review)

the-gatekeepers

The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency, Chris Whipple. New York: Crown, 2017. I hadn’t recognized how important the President’s Chief of Staff was until reading this book. Most of the living chiefs of staff were interviewed for this book in this exploration of what makes an effective chief of staff. (Full Review)

confident-pluralism

Confident PluralismJohn D. Inazu. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. I’ve probably recommended this book more often than any book I read this year. Inazu explores both the civic virtues and constitutional protections we need for a robust and yet civil public square for all of our people. (Full Review)

weapons-of-math-destruction

Weapons of Math DestructionCathy O’Neil. New York: Broadway Books, 2017. In the world of big data, mathematical algorithms determine our access to credit, the online ads we see, and sometimes whether we will be hired for a job or keep it. This is an insider view of these “weapons of math destruction” and the need for a code of ethics and audit of these algorithms to guard us from unjust harm. (Full Review)

the-circle

The CircleDave Eggers. New York: Vintage, 2014. This dystopian novel recently appeared in the theaters. The chilling thing one realizes is that everything in the novel is, or easily could be, done in an online and networked world where we share much of our lives via social media, and much else about us exists in databases storing our online histories, health histories, purchasing histories, and more. (Full Review)

So, here are ten more books that I thought were good “reads” and worthy of your attention. Hopefully my summaries here and the full reviews give you enough to figure out if they are worth your attention. If you are still wondering about a book, drop me a line. I love connecting good friends with good books!

Look for my list of “most popular reviews” next week. These are the books those who follow this blog are most interested in. Some surprises here!

 

 

 

Bob on Books Best of 2017

culture-care

If you follow book and publishing sites, this is the time where they post their best books of 2017. I suspect part of the idea is to aid those shopping for their bibliophile friends in choosing just the right gift. Here are my own “best books.” A few caveats. I read some fiction but not a great deal. My selection is an older work many of you have already heard of or perhaps read, but which I enjoyed. Many but not all of the books listed were indeed published in 2017, but some earlier, and I’ve just gotten around to reading them and considered them among my “best” of the year. So without further ado, here is the list:

culture-care

Best of the Year: Culture CareMakoto Fujimura. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017. Here’s what I wrote in my review of the book:

“To read this book was a moving experience for me, one about which I wrote (“Culture Care Instead of Culture War“) while reading the book. I found a voice that resonated deeply with my longing for alternatives to the banal, rancorous and ugly expressions of culture around us. Fujimura invites us to care for our culture rather than engage in war over it, to give our selves to a common pursuit of beauty to sustain and renew our common life.”  (Full Review)

caring-for-words

Best book not published in 2017: Caring for Words in a Culture of LiesMarilyn McEntyre. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009. I found this an eloquent book by an author who cares for words and truth, and utterly relevant to our present time. (Full Review)

temple-and-tabernacle

Best book in Biblical Studies: The Temple and the Tabernacle, J. Daniel Hays. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2016. A rich, and richly illustrated, study of how God encountered and dwelled among his people and how this anticipated the coming of Christ. (Full Review)

engaging-the-doctrine-of-creation

Best Theological Work: Engaging the Doctrine of CreationMatthew Levering. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017. The doctrine of creation is foundational to so much else in Christian theology and anthropology and I thought Levering engaged this well. I wrote, “I would consider this a sterling example of excellent theological writing. Levering is not content to engage the writers of the last ten or fifty years, but roots his work in biblical teaching, the work of the church fathers, as well as major teachers of the church like Thomas Aquinas.” (Full Review)

kingfishers

Best Sermon Collection: As Kingfishers Catch FireEugene H. Peterson. Colorado Springs: Waterbrook, 2017. Peterson’s valedictory work that captures so many of the themes of his writing and serves as an example of skillful pastoral work. (Full Review)

single-gay-christian

Best Christian Memoir: Single, Gay, ChristianGregory Coles. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017. I easily could have chosen this as my overall best book. I’ve read several narratives this year of LGBT persons coming to terms with their faith and sexual identity. I appreciated the combination of conviction and modesty in this narrative and his longing for a better conversation that moves beyond the binary “side A/side B” discussion. (Full Review)

evicted

Best Book on a Contemporary Issue: EvictedMatthew Desmond. New York: Broadway Books, 2017. Matthew Desmond’s powerful book studying the impact of eviction, how it perpetuates poverty, and his incarnational research approach merit the Pulitzer Prize awarded this book. (Full Review)

the-last-lion

Best History or Biography: The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965William Manchester and Paul Reid. New York: Bantam Publishing, 2013. I had long awaited the final installment of this three volume biography by Manchester completed posthumously by Paul Reid. Flawed as all humans are, we nevertheless see the incomparable greatness of Churchill. (Full Review)

astrophysics-for-people-in-a-hurry

Best Science and Technology:  Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, Neil deGrasse Tyson. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2017. Tyson explains complex phenomena in understandable terms, and also explores the wonder and haunting questions that face all of us as we consider the cosmos of which we are a part. (Full Review)

wolf-hall

Best Fiction WorkWolf Hall, Hilary Mantel. New York: Picador, 2010. This historical fiction account of Thomas Cromwell explores what it was like to be this powerful and competent figure, serving at the pleasure of Henry VIII. (Full Review)

No two best books lists are alike. All I can say for this one is that it reflects what I have read (at least so far) in 2017. Had I more time, I suspect Ron Chernow’s new book on Grant would probably be on the list, and no doubt some others. Many others just missed my very arbitrary “cut.” I’d love to hear about some of your best books of this year!

Review: Living Wisely with the Church Fathers

Living Wisely with the Church Fathers

Living Wisely with the Church FathersChristopher A. Hall. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: An exploration of what we might learn from the church fathers about lives well lived, touching on everything from martyrdom to entertainment.

We turn to a variety of sources to figure out how to live well, sources ranging from lists on websites, to self-help books, to mentors and “life coaches,” to the scriptures. Christopher Hall, in the concluding volume of a four volume series, explores what the early fathers of the church, speaking out of a very different context than ours, can teach us about living wisely. Summarizing this four-part project and the focus of this final volume, Hall writes:

“What did these ancient Christians–whose thoughts and practices continue to be read, pondered, discussed, debated, and embraced today–think about the Bible, God, worship, and prayer? More importantly for this book, how did the fathers answer a very specific question: How can God’s image bearer learn to live a good life, a life nourished by the values of the kingdom of God, a life of deep and lasting human flourishing, a life filled with love for God and neighbor? If, as Athanasius puts it, transgression has ‘taken hold’ of human beings, and ‘natural corruption’ now characterizes the human condition, how can God’s image bearers be made right again–made right not only in our relationship to God but in relationship to one another and to the entire created order?” (p. 2)

An introduction explores the context of the fathers and the kinds of issues they confront, particularly our moral disposition and passion, concluding with the kinds of questions we might ask ourselves in the course of this study. Hall then addresses seven topics on which the fathers taught and their relevance to us:

  • Martyrdom
  • Wealth and Poverty
  • War and Military Service
  • Sex and the Dynamics of Desire
  • Life as Male and Female, and the Goodness and Beauty of Marriage
  • Life and Death
  • Entertainment

What Hall helps us appreciate is the distinctive message of the fathers, who speak the counsels of God from a very different cultural context than our own. For example, martyrdom was an ever present threat, one that could be avoided by an offering to the emperor, an easy ritual. Many refused, and died, even as is occurring in many parts of the world. A life of peace for Christians, assumed in the West, has often not been our lot and raises the question of whether there is any cost to our discipleship and where we might place our ultimate allegiance.

On wealth and poverty, Hall recounts a sermon of Chrysostom on Lazarus and the rich man and the issue of whether we live with discretion with our wealth, using it to bless and thus fulfilling the purpose of wealth in our lives and others. Hall helps us understand the pacifism of the early church, the uneasy change to more of a “just war” perspective post-Constantine, and challenges us to wrestle with the sometimes unequivocal refusal of the church to kill.

The following two chapters focus on sexuality, gender, and marriage. We often consider the ancients terribly repressed. Hall observes that contrary to the body-denying nature of gnosticism, the fathers recognized the realities of sexual desire, both how this might harm, and the goodness of marriage and marital sexuality. He deals honestly with the problems of linking celibacy and the priesthood in the west. He also reminds us of the significant roles of women, including Macrina, who might be numbered the “Fourth Cappadocian.” Hill also points out the uncompromising opposition of the fathers to any form of homosexual intimacy.

One of the briefest, yet most pointed chapters lays out the strongly affirmative life ethic from cradle to grave in a society where abortion was commonly practiced, children abandoned, as well as the sick and dying in times of plague. The church adamantly refused to abort, rescued abandoned children and nursed the sick, at risk to themselves. Finally, in a challenge to our modern entertainment culture, often fascinated with gore, we learn of the refusal of the church to join the celebration of the violent gladiatorial games, recognizing how such things might create “dead zones” in our own lives.

The last chapter is truly a capstone, returning to the fundamental questions of how we live well. We learn of how the fathers diagnosed our problem of disordered loves and the disciplines of askesis that allow the rhythms of grace to reorder our affections in love for God and neighbor.

This work plainly whets our appetites for the fathers, and their counter-cultural message that may re-orient our perspectives and affections. Perhaps this was a part of earlier volumes, but I would have welcomed an appendix or suggested readings at the end of each chapter to go deeper with the fathers. One might track down ideas from the notes but recommendations of good editions and starting points could be helpful.

Hall has done us a great service in helping us to hear the distinctive voices of the fathers — their writings and sermons. Not all the good books have been written in the last ten years! There is a durable heritage of wise thought rooted in scripture directed toward a concern good pastors down the ages have always had–how to help God’s people enjoy God, love their neighbors and live well.

____________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

 

Review: Created & Creating

Created and Creating

Created & Creating, William Edgar. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: Explores the idea of “culture” from secular and Christians perspectives, explores the biblical basis for the culture mandate and continued cultural engagement, and the arguments raised against this idea.

Ever since the publication of Andy Crouch’s Culture-Making, there has been a renewed interest among many in engaging one’s culture, “seeking the peace and prosperity of the city” (Jeremiah 29:7). What William Edgar adds to this discussion is a biblical exploration of the basis Christians have for cultural engagement.

Edgar offers this definition of culture engagement, which also gives you a sense of the thesis of the book:

“Cultural engagement is the human response to the divine call to enjoy and develop the world that God has generously given to his image bearers. Culture includes the symbols, the tools, the conventions, the social ties, and all else contributing to this call. Cultural activity occurs in a historical setting, and is meant to improve the human condition.  Because of the fall, culture can, and has become sinister. Christ’s redeeming grace moves culture in the right direction, ennobles it, and allows it to extend the realm of God’s shalom, his goodness, his justice, his love” (pp. 233-234).

After an introductory chapter looking at definitions of culture, and the ideas of cultivation in scripture, Part One looks at the leading secular and Christian thinkers who have contributed to the discuss. There are Matthew Arnold, Marx, the anthropologists and sociologists like E. B. Tylor and Max Weber, and functionalists like A. R. Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski. He then considers Christian voices including Eliot, H. Richard Niebuhr, Lewis, Kuyper, and Klaas Schilder, who first coined the term “culture mandate.”

Part Two engages the objections raised to the culture mandate.  First he explores the contra mundum passages that seemingly set the gospel against the world and imply that cultural pursuits are distractions or simply idolatrous. Second is the idea that life in the world is spiritual resistance and conflict. The world is not our friend. And finally, it’s all going to burn. In these chapters, he acknowledges the force of these criticisms and yet distinguishes between the real consequences of the fall, and the defaced but not destroyed image of God in humans. In the final chapter in Part Two, he looks at the cosmic character of Christ’s redemptive work, portrayed both in Colossians 1:15-20, and in the Magnificat of Mary. The redemption covers all things in creation and human society.

Part Three then works these ideas out more fully. First Edgar considers the “cultural mandate” given the first couple before the fall–fruitfulness and dominion. He then traces how this was both worked out and marred in a post-fall world, how Israel anticipates the redemptive work of Christ. The chapter on culture in the new covenant makes an important argument for Christ’s great commission being a fulfillment and deeper implementation of the culture mandate, sending disciples to the dispersed nations, announcing God’s kingdom, discipling them to do all Christ has commanded in all of life–essentially a culture mandate for a redeemed world, anticipating the new heaven and earth. The last chapter in this part considers the afterlife, a culturally rich life enjoyed in the presence of God, at the great banquet of the bride with all the nations, and ruling and reigning and restoring.

Edgar’s brief epilogue points the way for further study, and how the study of the biblical cultural mandate lays the groundwork for human flourishing that is proximate, awaiting the final redemption of all things. Edgar in this book lays the groundwork for Christians joyfully pursuing Christ in “every good endeavor,” to use Tim Keller’s phrase. This is important for many Christians who refrain from these endeavors because they seem “worldly,” or pursue them, but do not see them as an integral part of a faithful Christian life. Edgar helps us see that the culture mandate is not opposed to the great commission, or superseded by it, but rather is fulfilled through it. In sum, Edgar helps us see all of life, and life’s possibilities through the eyes of Christ. How different life might be when everything matters!

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The President from the Mahoning Valley

Mckinley

President William McKinley — Photo Public Domain

Ohio is the birthplace of seven U.S presidents. One of these was born in and grew up in the Mahoning Valley. He was the 25th president of the United States. Probably the most significant event during his presidency was the Spanish-American war, at the end of which the United States acquired Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, which later gained their independence. The other major event of his presidency was its end, six months into his second term. He was in Buffalo to attend the Pan-American Exposition, when an anarchist by the name of Leon Czolgosz came up to him in a receiving line and fired two shots into his abdomen. He died eight days later from his wounds on September 14, 1901, putting his Vice President, Theodore Roosevelt into the White House. The presidency would never be the same.

William McKinley was born in Niles, Ohio. If you’ve ever driven through Niles, you likely have seen and gone past the National McKinley Birthplace Memorial. The birthplace home and research center is located nearby on 40 South Main Street. His father, William McKinley, Sr. settled in Lisbon as a boy where he met and married Nancy Allison. Both families made their living in iron-making and McKinley Senior had foundaries in Lisbon, Niles, Poland, and later Canton.

When McKinley was nine, his family moved to Poland, Ohio, where McKinley was enrolled in Poland Academy (later Seminary). Poland Seminary was a private institution, and as such, its finances later failed with the property being sold to the Poland City with the stipulation that the high school retain the name Poland Seminary, which it does to this day. One other famous connection to Poland Seminary was Ida Tarbell, who taught there before going on to a career in journalism where she gained notoriety as one of the “muckrakers,” particularly for her investigative reporting on John D. Rockefeller of nearby Cleveland, and his Standard Oil monopoly.

McKinley went on the Allegheny College, but had to return home to Poland after a year, in 1860, where he worked as a postal clerk and school teacher. He served under, among other officers, fellow Ohioan Rutherford B. Hayes, who became a mentor and friend and preceded him as Ohio’s governor and later U.S. President. McKinley began the war as a private but rose to the rank of major. He was decorated for his bravery on the battlefield. During Antietam, when he was serving as Quartermaster, his regiment was pinned down in the thick of fighting for hours without food, and McKinley made it through enemy lines and fire to bring them rations.

After the war, he returned for a time for Poland, decided on a career in law and read law with a local attorney before moving to Albany law school to complete his legal training. After this, he moved to Canton where he established his legal practice and began his rise in politics, first as country party chair, then serving several terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and then from 1892-1896 as Ohio’s governor.

McKinley was friends with at least two prominent Youngstown figures who I’ve written about in previous posts. Colonel Lemuel Talcott Foster (of Fosterville fame) was a boyhood and lifelong friend of McKinley. Joseph Butler was a political supporter and adviser of McKinley and wrote a biography of McKinley. Butler worked with the Niles Board of Trade to establish the McKinley Birthplace Memorial.

McKinley was not a dynamic leader like either of the Roosevelts. He was well enough regarded at the time to win a second term in an era with a string of one term presidents. Anyone who has taken a Hawaiian vacation can thank him, because he acquired Hawaii for the U.S. along with other territorial acquisitions. Hawaii would become a key base for projecting U.S. power in the Pacific. On balance, along with the many other people the Mahoning Valley has produced, we can be proud that we raised a civil war hero, lawyer, representative, governor and president who served honorably in all these roles.

Banning…Or Curating?

pyramid of transparency_updated“Every time you turn around, it seems a school somewhere is banning a book after parental complaints. What we should or shouldn’t be allowing–or requiring–students to read is a topic of constant, heated debate.”

This is the opening paragraph in a recent Bookriot article. I would contend that the writer is engaging in a bit of hyperbole. In 2016, according to the American Library Association, there were 323 challenges of all sorts, including challenges to databases, filtering, speakers, programs, or social media, as well as to books. That is less than one challenge per million people living in this country or just over six challenges in each state, on average The ALA contends this may be only about 10 percent of all actual challenges, which would mean there might be 3230 challenges, yet they quote a number of 10,766 but give no rationale for this number. Furthermore, these numbers are dropping. In 1995, 762 books were challenged. The reality is, in most cases the challenges are unsuccessful.

I do think we have to take a look at the reasons these books are challenged. Primarily, especially in the most recent top ten, the subject matter of the books which is objected often has to do with content that is sexually objectionable for a particular age group, or is “transgressive” on terms of sexuality, violence, drug use or language. One of the top 10 books was by Bill Cosby, challenged because of criminal sexual allegations against the author. Particularly in the light of #MeToo allegations, I think a credible case could be made for not promoting works by this author. We are “banning” figures facing similar allegations from political office, media positions and other workplaces.

The puzzling thing is that on the one hand we are promoting books that violate traditional sexual moral standards, and then attacking people, mostly men who make unwanted sexual advances against women. In no way, in writing this am I justifying these acts, which are inexcusable, nor suggesting that the one causes the other. Nor am I necessarily contending that such books should be “banned” from schools or libraries, particularly if they are of high literary merit, or if non-fiction, represent a well-argued and researched account the deals with different views fairly.

What troubles me more is the double rhetorical standard applied to this discussion. When parents object to books being available to their children that seem to affirm what they would view as transgressive, it is called “challenging, banning, and censorship.” But what is it called when librarians decide not to acquire books by white supremacists, by homophobic writers, or others of their ilk? It is called “curating” and even though the decisions they make affect the selection of books in the stacks for adults (not children), few people challenge the librarians for violating intellectual freedom. If one flipped the rhetoric, one could contend that librarians are the single largest group of book banners around, making conscious decisions to exclude far more titles than parents or patrons ever do.

I happen to think the librarians who make such choices are entirely justified in doing so and I would agree with them. But is there any role parents have in “curating” the books their children are exposed to? At very least, is there not a place for them in the decision processes, particular given the fact that there are only so many books that can be included in a curriculum, or in a library?

I would also observe that no one is banning these books from book stores or challenging stores for selling them. And with our online sellers, anything in print or e-book format is a click away. In fact, “banned books” are a bonanza for booksellers who promote them each year.

If we really care about “banned books” we may want to look at the books that are truly banned in other countries, beginning with the sacred scriptures of any religion not in the majority. In repressive regimes, books about democracy are often prohibited. In patriarchal regimes, books advocating the rights of women are banned. In some countries possession of some books is considered criminal.

Personally, I think trying to challenge or ban a book is a fool’s errand. I think a better tactic is for parents to read these books with their children and talk about them. I also think some questions we might explore more in curating books that our children are exposed to are:

  • What are some of the best books by age group, across different subject areas, that have stood the test of time, as well as newer books of widely recognized excellence, to which we want our children exposed?
  • What books will encourage our children to be readers?
  • What books will cultivate a sense of our history, our shared values, and highest aspirations, appealing to the better, rather than lesser, angels of our nature?

One thing everyone in this discussion agrees upon is that books matter. They shape our view of the world and the way we live. In an era where people may be reading less, might there be more discussion of how we might foster literacy and a lifelong love of reading. That seems to me a far more worthwhile endeavor than discussing what not to read.

Review: The American Spirit

The American Spirit

The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand ForDavid McCullough. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017.

Summary: A collection of addresses given by the author articulating some of the defining and distinctive qualities that define America at its best.

David McCullough has been one of those authors whose books I always make a point to pick up whenever a new one comes out. I was tempted to make an exception with this one, not usually being drawn to read transcripts of speeches. When I found it at a good discount, I took the plunge and I am glad I did.

The thread that links these speeches, given between 1989 and 2016 is what truly makes America great. McCullough would contend that it is the people and the democratic ideas and ideals and the working out of these, that have defined our greatness.  He assembled this collection during the contentious presidential race of 2016, and it is striking that he bookends the collection with speeches discussing the history of congress, and the Capitol building where it does its work. He highlights the distinguished figures who inhabited those halls from John Quincy Adams, former president and ardent anti-slavery advocate to Margaret Chase Smith, who in her first term stood up to Joseph McCarthy, and landmark legislation including the Morrill Land Grant Act establishing public tertiary education in the growing post-Civil War nation. McCullough highlights the collaboration across the political aisle that marked great legislative accomplishments, a challenge to both of our political parties.

A number of the speeches are college commencement addresses. A common theme here was McCullough’s affirmation of the aspirations of his listeners, and his encouragements that they become life long readers, including readers of our nation’s history. To Boston College grads in a speech titled “The Love of Learning” he writes:

“Read. Read, read! Read the classics of American literature that you’ve never opened. Read your country’s history. How can we profess to love our country and take no interest in its history? Read into the history of Greece and Rome. Read about the great turning points in the history of science and medicine and ideas.

Read for pleasure to be sure. I adore a good thriller or a first rate murder mystery. But take seriously–read closely–books that have stood the test of time. Study a masterpiece, take it apart, study its architecture, its vocabulary, its intent. Underline, make notes in the margins, and after a few years, go back and read it again (pp. 147-148).”

Couldn’t have said it better!

In every address, it is plain that McCullough has taken some time to look into the history of the place where he is speaking. Given my Ohio roots, I found it fascinating to read his speech at Ohio University and his sketch of the life of Manasseh Cutler, who was instrumental in the founding of Ohio University in 1804. Cutler was a minister, doctor, and lawyer wrapped up in one. Most significantly, perhaps, he was instrumental in lobbying Congress in the creation of the Northwest Ordinance, creating the Ohio company to sell the land and setting aside significant tracts to create universities, including Ohio University. In the end, the ordinance declared:

Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and means of education shall be forever encouraged.”

A number of the addresses reflect the high estimation in which McCullough holds John Adams. He recounts two sentences of a letter Adams wrote on his first night in the White House, that are now inscribed in the mantelpiece of the State Dining Room:

“I pray heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house, and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.”

While McCullough refrains from overt criticism either of Congress or the White House, his narrative of the people and ideas that have “made America great” stands as an implicit challenge both to our leaders and to us as citizens, first to understand the ideas and ideals that have distinguished us at our best, and then to live up to them rather than depart from them.

This pithy collection of speeches, accompanied by a number of striking photo of people and places serves well to whet the appetite to read more into our history, both to learn from and be inspired by it.

Review: Elon Musk

Musk

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic FutureAshlee Vance. New York: Ecco (HarperCollins), 2015.

Summary: A biography of the brilliant and flawed tech entrepreneur involved with SpaceX, Tesla, and his visions for the future of humanity.

He created software that anticipated modern mapping apps. He helped launch Paypal, and then was forced out, accruing the fortune that funded the beginnings of SpaceX and Tesla. He has proposed high speed travel via the “hyperloop” between cities, a proposal serious enough that my city is vying to be one of those linked by this new technology. He is the visionary who believes that we must colonize Mars for the human species to survive. Yet he has sounded the alarm against Artificial Intelligence and an apocalypse of intelligent machines (anybody want to be a robot pet?).

This biography traces the life of this tech entrepreneur from his precocious childhood in South Africa that subjected him to bullying, his sale of a video game called Blaster at age 12, his move to Canada, education at Penn State (degrees in physics and business). His first start-up venture, with brother Kimball was Zip2, a kind of online city guide that included mapping functions, eventually sold to Compaq. He used funds from this to start X.com, which through mergers eventually morphed into PayPal. He was ousted from the company but came away with $180 million.

Musk used this to fund two ventures. SpaceX was his vision to privatize space travel, developing a model commercial space transport. Tesla was originally formed not by Musk but by Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning to manufacture all-electric cars. Musk came in as an investor and spent most of that fortune on the two companies, both of which nearly went belly up. Much of the book is about the technological and financial challenges Musk faced, but also, in the case of Tesla, conflicts with the first founders. It’s a story of Musk’s relentless drive to succeed, that drove others (or drove them out). Along the way, we learn of Musk’s peculiar kind of brilliance that masters the highly technological details of rocketry, car manufacturing, and eventually, solar power.

While Musk can certainly turn on the charm, whether in wooing his second wife or wooing prospective Tesla buyers, it is clear that this is not a nice person, and all of this is justified by the relentless pursuit of visionary goals. The book is laced with the f-bomb, Musk’s favorite curse word. He divorced his first wife Justine, and divorced, remarried, and divorced again second wife Talulah Riley. The challenge seems to have been finding time for them in his high pressure life, and not just as attractive accessories to his public persona.

The book concludes with Musk’s visionary perspective with its focus on Mars space travel, but also of a commercially viable private space industry, a totally different approach to the automobile and widely-accessible solar power. One is left wondering if it is possible to be brilliant, visionary, successful–and good. Some would say, three out of four isn’t bad, and point to the people around Musk who share his vision and goals, and consider pursuing them with him a life well-lived. I suspect Musk would say that his personal morality is less in question than the flourishing of the human species, perhaps as a multi-planetary race. It’s an “ends justifies means” argument. The question remains, “what kind of people will make up the human community in Musk’s fantastic future?” It’s a question I wonder if he’s thought about. Have we?

 

Review: Shadow Country

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Shadow Country, Peter Matthiessen. New York: Modern Library, 2008.

Summary: A condensation of the Watson trilogy, giving three different renderings of the life and death of Edgar J. Watson, a planter, and notorious alleged murderer, of the Ten Thousand Islands area of southwest Florida.

A few basic facts to begin with about this National Book Award (2008) winning novel. At 892 pages it is actually a condensation of an earlier trilogy of books on the Edgar Watson legend, cutting roughly a third of the material! Although fiction, the story is based on a historical figure who has something of a legendary status on southwest Florida, Edgar J. Watson.

Watson grew up in Edgefield, South Carolina, the son of an abusive Civil War veteran. Just when it appears that he is getting himself established, he gets mixed up in the death of a relative and begins a life of looking over his shoulder. He flees to Fort White, marries the true love of his life, who he loses in the birth of their first child who he only called “Sonborn” for years. Eventually he has to flee to the Indian territories, marries again, gets mixed up in the death of Belle Starr, does time in prison, and escapes and returns to Florida and kills a man in self-defense. He then heads to southwest Florida and sets up a new life on a sugar cane plantation in the Ten Thousand Islands area on the southwest Florida coast, near Chokoloskee, Florida, settled by the Smallwood family, who had a store there. He brings his second wife there until her health fails and she goes to Ft. Myers to stay with her daughter and son-in-law. He flees when former workers on his plantation and squatters on land he acquired turn up dead. He returns to Fort White, marries for a third time and gets mixed up in the murders of two men. After being acquitted, he returns to his plantation (Chatham Bend), which becomes the refuge of several criminals including the actual murderer, Les Cox, of the two men in Fort White (and several others). The climax occurs when a mass murder occurs at Chatham Bend prior to a hurricane while Watson is reputedly absent. Watson claims it is Les Cox who committed the murders, is reluctantly permitted to return to bring Cox back dead or alive, and when he returns without Cox, and appears to be raising his shotgun, is killed in a hail of gunfire.

That is the outline of the life of the real Edgar Watson. The novel consists of three books, during which the death of Watson is described four times. The first book consists of recollections of different people of the Chokoloskee area of the life and death of Watson. The second is the effort of his youngest son, Lucius, a budding historian, to find out first, who killed his father, and then, what kind of man it was they killed. The third book is in the voice of Watson himself, rendering the most complete account of his life.

What each of the accounts agree upon is that Watson was a kind of “force of nature” and a leader of men for better or worse. He was a womanizer who never apologized for satisfying his sexual drive, nor for the numerous children he begot. He drank far too much. Was he the notorious murderer the townspeople of Chokoloskee feared and ultimately did away with? Was he actually the bold entrepreneur who Lucius for some time believed was innocent of the evil others attributed to him. Was he the complicated individual who had killed some, was innocent of the murders of others who kept trying to make his way only to be brought down by misfortune.

Two other mysteries swirl around the book, and the legends surrounding Watson. Who fired the first and fatal kill shot. Was it the black man, Henry Short, and did the rest fire to cover it so that Henry would not be lynched? And what really happened to Les Cox, the pathological murderer who killed at least seven at Chatham Bend?

As you can tell, this is a dark story. What makes this long book a fascinating read is the exploration of this singular character over which people continue to argue. My own conclusion is that somehow, even the worst of human beings bear some trace of the image of God, twisted and obscured as it may be. It is also a story of the complicated relationships between blacks, whites, and native peoples. Lastly, in the backdrop is the ecological destruction of the natural habitat as forest are cleared, plume birds eradicated, clam populations destroyed and natural features destroyed by canals and road construction.

In addition to the fascinating exploration of this character and his place, what holds one’s interest through such a large book is the author’s technique of breaking a long story into bite-sized narratives in differing voices that keep you reading from one to the next until you decide (at least I did) to not put the book down until I finished it. For those contemplating whether this is the long book in which to lose yourself, don’t choose this if you are looking for a “feel good” book. This one will intrigue you, and make you think about the human condition in ways similar to Heart of Darkness in the shadow country of the Florida everglades.

Review: Mark Through Old Testament Eyes

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Mark Through Old Testament EyesAndrew T. LePeau. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2017

Summary: The first in a series of commentaries looking at the Old Testament background of the New Testament text, with attention to the meaning of structural elements in the text, and the practical implications of the text for Christians and churches.

There are a myriad of commentary series on the market today. Of course there are scholarly exegetical commentaries that work up from the original languages and extant texts to give the best reading of a passage, popular commentaries that distill this information with more emphasis on contemporary relevance, and more recently, commentaries that collect the commentary of the church fathers or writers in a particular church tradition. This commentary, the first of a series focused on the New Testament corpus, explores how the Old Testament, which was the Bible of the New Testament writers, deeply informs their thought, not only where Old Testament material is quoted but also as background to much of its content.

The commentary is organized around four repeating features:

  • Running commentary, that offers Old Testament background and other key information for each paragraph, if not each verse. Working through LePeau’s commentary made the case for the idea of this series. Nearly every verse, and certainly every pericope in Mark is informed by Old Testament backgrounds. In the opening verses of Mark 1, for example, the commentary explores terms like “beginning,” “good news,” “Jesus,” “Messiah,” “Son of God,” “wilderness,” and “baptism of repentance.” And that is just the first four verses!
  • Through Old Testament Eyes, which are summaries at the end of chapters or sections looking at how Old Testament themes are used by the author. At the end of the commentary on Mark 1, the commentary notes how the first chapter draws on the themes of exodus, and sets up how the ministry of Jesus will parallel this in a new exodus narrative.
  • What the Structure Means looks at how the material in the text is organized by the author through things like chiasmus and parallel structures, and how this points to textual meaning. Throughout the book, LePeau looks at the ways Mark structures the narrative, using many tables to do so. One of the most informative sections is the “What the Structure Means: Outline of Mark 13” taking this difficult to understand apocalyptic passage, and proposing an A-B-A-B structure to the passage that makes sense of the whole, alternating passages focused on the temple with passages focused on the coming of the Son of Man.
  • Going Deeper sections unpack the implications of key themes in passages. For example, “Going Deeper into Choosing Life: Mark 3:1-6” explores how this involves both what we refrain from (the prohibitions of the ten commandments, which LePeau calls “ten paths to freedom and life”) and what we proactively embrace that brings life to others, just as Jesus brings healing that liberates on the Sabbath.

The commentary is accessible and organized to be helpful for all who preach or teach the gospel of Mark. No background in original languages is assumed. One of the features I found most helpful, in addition to the extensive Old Testament background are the various tables included throughout the text that offer ideas as to the structure of larger portions of Mark. So often, Bible study is simply one verse after another without attention to the larger framework of a passage or book. At the end of the commentary, lists of “tables,” “through Old Testament Eyes,” and “Going Deeper” discussions are provided. For teachers of this material, it might be a great resource to provide web-based versions of the tables with appropriate permission granted for their use for educational purposes.

It was fascinating to note another “background” for much of the material in this book, one I share. The author, formerly an associate editor at InterVarsity Press, part of the collegiate ministry with which I work, acknowledges his debt to the work of Paul Byer and the tradition of “Mark manuscript Bible study” used in our discipleship efforts for many of the insights (and even some of the tables) in the book. LePeau has made a signal contribution to that tradition in this volume, which I hope many of my colleagues, as well as many others, will use in preparing studies in Mark. And as series editor, LePeau has set the bar high for future volumes in this series, which I hope will bring a deeper appreciation to many throughout the church of the Old Testament background of the New Testament scriptures.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.